Catherine ParrCheltenham
1512 - 5th September 1548
Best remembered as the 6th and final wife of King Henry VIII, Catherine Parr was an extremely well-bred, intelligent, wise and forthright north country woman.
Her father, Sir Thomas Parr was a descendant of King Edward III and lord of the manor of Kendal in Westmorland (now Cumbria) and her mother was the daughter of a lord and a co-heiress - the Parrs were therefore a substantial northern family.
Sir Thomas was a close companion to King Henry VIII, and was rewarded as such with responsibilities and/or incomes from his positions as Sheriff of Northamptonshire, Master of the Wards, and Comptroller to the King.
Catherine's mother was a close friend and lady-in-waiting to King Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. When the Parr’s expected baby turned out to be a girl Katherine was made her godmother and she was given the name ‘Catherine’.
As part of the Royal household the Parrs lived in London at Blackfriars. A number of her siblings did not reach adulthood but a younger brother William survived to become the first Marquess of Northampton, and a younger sister Anne, became Countess of Pembroke.
Catherine's initial education was similar to other well-born women but she was hopeless at needlework and disliked it intensely. Instead, she developed a passion for learning which would continue throughout her life. She was fluent in French, Latin, and Italian, and began learning Spanish after marrying King Henry VIII.
Her first marriage was in 1529 at the age of 17 to Sir Edward Burgh. An unhealthy young man in his twenties, who subsequently died before inheriting the title of Baron Burgh.
Catherine’s second marriage in 1534 was to a man twice her age and a widower. John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer was her father's second cousin and a kinsman of Lady Strickland. With this marriage, Catherine became only the second woman in the Parr family to marry into the peerage. She now had a home of her own, a husband with a position and influence in the north, a title and two step-children.
Unfortunately for Catherine she had chosen a husband who was mixed up with the religious politics of the time. In 1536 Catholic rebels tried to enlist his help in restoring Catholicism to England and Catherine watched as her husband was dragged away.
For six months a fearful Catherine lived alone with her step-children, struggling to survive. She was right to worry because in January 1537 they were taken hostage by the rebels and held at Snape Castle in Yorkshire.
Latimer’s house was ransacked and threats made to kill the family. Latimer was already on his way back from London and somehow managed to talk the rebels into releasing his family and to leave his home.
During these events King Henry VIII, aided and abetted by Thomas Cromwell, was suspicious of Latimer, uncertain if he was a traitor or a prisoner. Catherine’s brother and his uncle intervened to save Latimer's life.
Although no charges were laid against him, Latimer's reputation, which reflected upon Catherine, was tarnished for the rest of his life. For five years the family kept a relatively low profile, living in the south. It is probable that, in these uncertain times, Catherine's strong reaction against the Catholic rebellion strengthened her adherence to the Protestant reformed Church of England.
In 1542 the family spent time in London as Latimer attended Parliament. Catherine visited her brother William and her sister Anne, at court where she met her future fourth husband, Sir Thomas Seymour. Catherine found the Court atmosphere exciting, quite different to the rural estates she was used to, and she liked what she saw. She was exposed to the latest trends, not only in religious matters, but in less weighty secular things such as fashion and jewellery.
By the winter of 1542, Lord Latimer's health had worsened. Catherine nursed her husband until his death in 1543. In his will, Catherine was named as guardian of his daughter Margaret, and was put in charge of his affairs until his daughter's majority.
Latimer left Catherine the manor of Stowe and other properties. He also bequeathed money for supporting his daughter, and in the case that his daughter did not marry within five years, Catherine was to take £30 a year out of the income to support her step-daughter.
Catherine was left an extremely rich widow, but faced with the possibility of having to return north. There is no doubt that Catherine mourned the death of her husband but she was still a young woman and not ready to be despatched to the dull north.
1543 was also the year that Catherine anonymously published her first book , Psalms or Prayers. A subsequent book entitled Lamentations of a Sinner was published in November 1547, under her own name. The book was a success and widely praised.
Joining Henry VIII’s Court
Taking advantage of her late mother's friendship with the Dowager Queen Katherine, Catherine renewed her own friendship with the former queen's daughter, Lady Mary. By 16 February 1543, Catherine had established herself as part of Mary's household, and it was there that Catherine caught the eye of the King.
Marriage to King Henry VIII
We all know that King Henry VIII was desperate for a legitimate male heir and when his lecherous gaze fell upon Catherine Parr he was determined to marry her. Although she was in love with Thomas Seymour and about to marry him, she accepted Henry’s proposal. It was not wise to cross the King so Henry got his way and married his sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, in 1543. Seymour was given a posting in Brussels to remove him from the king's court.
Catherine dutifully accepted her new role as queen and enjoyed a close relationship with Henry's three children and was personally involved in the education of Elizabeth and Edward.
She reconciled Henry with his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth and persuaded him to pass the Third Succession Act making them next in line to the throne if the male heir Edward died before having legitimate children.
She was an able queen, entrusted by her husband with regency powers while he was away fighting wars with France. Even so, her attempts at Protestant reforms made her husband suspicious and there were rumours that he was thinking of getting rid of her. She wisely drew back her demands and persuaded Henry that she only argued with him about religion to distract him from the pain of his ulcerated legs.
Henry was too ill to father any more children and Catherine remained his constant companion, nursing him through his final years until his death in 1547. Shortly before he died, Henry made provision in his will for an allowance of £7,000 per year for Catherine to support herself, but did not specify any role for her in government. He further ordered that, after his death, Catherine, though a queen dowager, should be given the respect of a queen of England, as if he were still alive.
Following Henry’s death young King Edward VI granted Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire to his uncle, Sir Thomas Seymour, appointing him Lord of Sudeley and later Lord High Admiral of England.
After the coronation of her stepson, Edward VI, on 31 January 1547Catherine retired from court, to her home at Old Manor in Chelsea. She was now free to marry her real love, Thomas Seymour.
Marriage to Sir Thomas Seymour
The Seymour brothers, Thomas and Edward, were uncles to the new King Edward VI. As soon as Henry was dead Sir Thomas Seymour promptly returned to court and flouting convention, proposed marriage to Catherine.
Since only six months had passed since the death of King Henry, Seymour knew that the Regency Council would not agree to a petition for the queen dowager to marry so soon. They married in secret but their unseemly haste caused a scandal.
King Edward VI and the Council were not informed of the union for several months and when their marriage became public knowledge, the young king and Lady Mary expressed their extreme displeasure at the union.
Unbelievably, after being censured and reprimanded by the Council, Seymour actually wrote to the Lady Mary asking her to intervene on his behalf. Mary became furious at his forwardness and tasteless actions and refused to help. Mary even went as far as asking her half-sister, Lady Elizabeth, not to interact with Queen Catherine any further.
A Squabble over the Royal Jewels
During this time, Catherine began having altercations with her brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. Like Thomas, Edward was the King's uncle, and also was the Lord Protector. A rivalry developed between Catherine and his wife, her own former lady-in-waiting, Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, which became particularly acute over the matter of Catherine's jewels.
The Duchess argued that as queen dowager, Catherine was no longer entitled to wear the jewels belonging to the wife of the king. Instead she, as the wife of the Protector, should be the one to wear them. Eventually, the Duchess won the argument, which left her relationship with Catherine permanently damaged.
The relationship between the two Seymour brothers also worsened as a result, since Lord Thomas saw the whole dispute as a personal attack by his brother on his social standing.
Following their marriage, Seymour and Katherine moved to Sudeley Castle which Seymour refurbished to accommodate his new bride. They were accompanied by the cleric Miles Coverdale, with maids-of-honour and gentlewomen-in-ordinary, more than 120 gentlemen of the household and Yeoman of the Guard.
Catherine invited Lady Elizabeth and her cousin, Lady Jane Grey, to stay in the household. The dowager queen promised to provide education for both. Queen Catherine's house came to be known as a respected place of learning for young women.
After finally achieving happiness it was a tragedy that her marriage ended prematurely. On August 30th 1548 Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary, only to die on September 5th from complications of childbirth. She was 36-years-old and was buried in the Chapel of St Mary at Sudeley with Lady Jane Grey officiating as Chief Mourner.
Catherine Parr’s splendid tomb can be found in St Mary’s Church in the grounds of Sudeley Castle & Gardens.
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